Instinct to Invent: An interview with John A. Nieves
Poet Pádraig Ó Tuama says “language needs courtesy to guide it and an inclusion and a generosity that goes beyond precision and becomes something much more akin to sacrament.” (On Being Podcast ). This type of transcendent generosity watermarks the work of poet, educator, and scholar, John A. Nieves. Whether he’s celebrating his students’ successes on his author website, researching extensively in the fields of literary craft and theory, or creating multiple poetry projects, Nieves approaches each with a fervor that’s a mix of kindness, rigorous inquiry, and expansive experiment. In this interview, he holds up a magnifying glass to his belief that humans can dream a way into answers through language and that slow and careful work yields magic on the page.
Broadkill Review: At this particular moment in time, what’s exciting you or worthy of praise in the literary world? What do you long to see more of?
John A. Nieves: I am super excited about the incredible resurgence of high-quality lyric poetry over the past decade. Recently, I have loved Catherine Pierce’s Danger Days, Valencia Robin’s Ridiculous Light, Kathryn Nuernberger’s Rue & Chelsea Dingman’s through a small ghost. I also love a good chapbook. Caroline Chavatel’s White Noises & Kathryn Merwin’s Womanskin are stunning. I have also been impressed with journals who have maintained a clear aesthetic during the current global tumult. Print journals such as Southern Review, Crazyhorse, Sugar House Review & Massachusetts Review and online journals like Tinderbox Poetry Journal, The Rupture & The National Poetry Review are some that come to mind, but there are other excellent examples, too.
I would love to see more funding for college presses and journals. Not just because they create incredible literary artifacts, but because of the valuable experience students get working on such enterprises. I hope, as the budget cuts begin to ease and congress sends more help, meaningful money will go to these projects.
BKR: You are one of the Poetry Editors at The Shore, a literary magazine in its second year of publication. What challenges and joys have you encountered launching it and seeking “poems that press and push and ache and recede?”
JAN: Working with The Shore team has been one of the greatest privileges of my life. For every issue, I read so many incredible poems. Sometimes deciding what to let go is heartbreaking. It took a while to get used to the workflow, which, as you know, is significant. Emma DePanise and Caroline Chavatel, my co-editors, are two of the smartest, most capable people I have ever known. We have excellent chemistry, and though we are physically distant (Maryland, Indiana, Georgia), we are in near-constant communication. The rest of our staff also does incredible work on interviews, book reviews, the blog, and social media. It really takes a team and we have a strong one.
After the crunch to proof every issue, I have such an incredible sense of pride about the work we have put into the world. We have been lucky to have attracted some incredible international poets, too, especially from Nigeria and India. They have added so much to what we can offer. I think the thing I am most proud of is to usher what I see as deeply moving and sincere poetry into the world with a group a great editors.
BKR: The Shore wants “poems that explore the worlds of things and ideas, that recognize the liminality, the shifting of everything around us, and our ability to name a thing whole.” Can you elaborate on that and perhaps name some poets who do this well?
JAN: The world is stubborn about its mutability. Every time something feels sure, and someone finds the words to articulate it, it has changed. This gives almost every poem a built-in elegiac register. We want poems that look to that, not away from it. We are our pasts. We can never react to something that is not already gone. Even the reader of this interview can not consider this sentence until they finish it. Poems that embrace this truth keep mattering because it is ever-present. We hunt for those. I could name some poets we have published that do this work often: Anand Prahlad, Sneha Subramanian Kanta, Sarah Barber, Elizabeth Bradfield, Nicholas Samaras, Joshua Garcia and Joely Byron Fitch.
BKR: In September of 2020, you were given a Distinguished Faculty Award which is selected by the Faculty of Salisbury University. Dr. Maarten Pereboom, dean of SU’s Charles R. and Martha N. Fulton School of Liberal Arts said, “John [Nieves] is a masterful mentor to students, enabling them to find or unleash their words, to work hard on their writing, and to connect that writing with an audience,” and you state in your teaching philosophy that you “treat every piece by every student like they mean to work it into publishable form one day,” also “My goal is to help students find a successful path forward in their writing and their future careers.” Congratulations on that honor. Can you talk about why mentorship is so important, not only in university settings but poetry communities as well?
JAN:Thank you so much. That award means so much to me. My colleagues at SU are such amazing people. Being honored by them is both humbling and overwhelmingly joyful. Mentorship matters so much to me because our literary landscape is so complex as to be intimidating and, most importantly, if great new writers aren’t getting their work into the world, literature will die when we need it most. When I first meet a new writer in a mentorship situation, I spend time trying to learn their aesthetic and artistic goals. What do they wish their work could do that it can’t yet? What is it doing that they love? Then I try to offer suggestions to make those things work together. It is important to me not to impose my own aesthetic on the mentees work. Instead, I do everything I can to help them hone their vision. Once they feel it is ready, we look to markets that might be interested in such a work. I tell my students to use me as a cheat sheet for literary journals until they get a handle on the market because it is so large and shifting. I have a wall of lit mags in my office they know they can just take from and never worry about returning. My process with them is to help them figure out how to submit, where to submit and when to submit. Whether they do or not is their choice entirely. After they start getting acceptances, I teach them how to withdraw and how to understand the different rights acquired. We look into internships, careers and graduate programs next because we both have started to get a sense of what the new writer’s goals are. Mentorship is about listening then offering the best options you know of, then getting out of the way. It is a small thing, but I also try to answer questions as fast as humanly possible so no one feels stuck.
BKR: At this writing, you list on your website sixteen forthcoming poems in various journals. Can you talk about the process you go through to get them ready to publish? Do you have advice for poets who are polishing their own poems?
Honestly, I share work with the cohort I have been lucky enough to acquire through my life—former grad classmates, my co-editors, alumni who have moved on to bigger things—to bounce drafts off of. I am a version monster. I like to try things lots of different ways before I decide which is working, so reactions from people I trust are really helpful in sussing out which are doing the most work. Once I feel a piece is doing something I think is important in a way I am proud of, I send it out. This process is not for everyone. It is slow, but I love the results. Then I carefully select markets I think make sense for that work and hope they agree!
For new writers, I say this: read, read, read, read, read. You can learn a lot from what you love and what you hate. If you read a journal and love 40% of the work, that is probably a good fit. Try sending there. If you read a journal and like less than 10% of the work, it probably does not match your aesthetic. Do not send there. If you read a book of poems and fall in love, read the acknowledgments page and check out some of those journals. Many are probably a good fit for you, too! It is all about being dedicated to making sure your work is of a high enough quality. Does it have something to say people haven’t heard a million times before? Does it give words to something that previously had none? Does it innovate a sensory experience? If it is contributing something and proofread well. Send it.
BKR: In The Missouri Review you talk about writing poems “that used geomantic figures as a formal and thematic device to explore the questions: ‘What do we ask for when we are alone or can’t expect a human-produced response? What does that mean about us?’” Can you talk about geomancy, your research, and what you achieved or learned along the way?
JAN: Those questions are at the heart of my manuscript, Stone Deep, which I am shopping around now. I learned a lot about apostrophe and the integral role it plays, not just in lyric poetry, but in life. Geomancy, like many other forms of divination, was just a way to ask the world a question and give yourself an answer that you could feel came from somewhere else. This is a really healthy exercise because it is optative. It is fundamentally hopeful. It believes that answers can be found. What could be more hopeful than that? And even if those answers are wrong, we keep asking. Even in our darkest moments, we are a hopeful species. I think about this often. Even if we look for hope where there is none, our instinct is to invent some. What a gift that is. I am very proud of the poems that came out of it. It is a 32 poems series with two poems for each symbol playing out different aspects of how that symbol is read on different mundane substrates.
BKR: If exploration is one of the essential functions of poetry, to explore without an intention to discover something or arrive in a certain place, how do you think poets can manifest this exploration in their own work? Can you point to any poets you admire who do this successfully? And are there poems you write solely for yourself in this exploratory pursuit?
JAN: I never write a poem that doesn’t begin with a question. If I already know the answer, I won’t even try to write to it. I must not know. I have to work through the question in the poem. Often, I delete where I started. Often, I stop before I know anything for sure, but I am sure I have reached a new question. My good friend Claire McQuerry said to me once, “if your poems can’t surprise you, who else will they surprise?” That was an ingenious question. It gets to the heart of what poems can accomplish—to teach us our own world anew.
Some poets who constantly astonish me in this way are Alexandra Teague, Yusef Komunyakaa, Kimberly Grey, David Hernandez, Daniel Simko, and Emma DePanise. They are revelation makers.
BKR: Jane Satterfield, in her introduction to your award-winning collection, Curio (Elixir Press, 2014), says “his elegiac impulse is driven by his belief in words as a medium of rescue” and “Words, Nieves reminds us, are nourishment.” Can you talk a little bit about how words are a balm and sustenance for you as a poet and also as an offering to your readers?
JAN: First, it was such an honor to have Jane choose my book and write my intro. She is a literary superhero. Her husband, Ned Balbo is, too. Jane helped usher one of my favorite books, Jake Adam York’s Murder Ballads into the world. One of his other books, Abide, also haunts me daily. They are such gifts. This is what I mean. When you hit a feeling or a mood or a spot in your day when you know what you need is someone else’s insight in a way you can make your own, only a poem will do. They start to call. You might know which author or poem you want to reach for first and that will feed you. But if you let yourself wander from there, all sorts of nourishment is possible. You might begin to overflow and need to write your own poem. You might order more books. You might dive into a new journal. We all have so much to offer each other, so many ways we can see the world that no one else can. The more we share, the more all of us can see and learn and explore. Poems let us live more lives than our lives.
BKR: Your poem “On Refraction” in Harvard Review (10/29/20) has a sense of the divine number three at play throughout. Not only because of the tercets that move on the page like waves of light dawning and receding, but also because of the past, present, and future moments that come together in the last stanza:
Today, I put my hand on my partner’s
shoulder and drink her easy warmth. Later, she will not call to say the next thing snuck up on her. She will not give me an address
and ask for any sending. And while you both say nothing in the storm-light, I know they don’t mean the same.
It almost gives a sense of time travel or alternate timelines. How do mathematics and science inform your poetics?
JAN: I am a science junky. I love physics and chemistry and biology and astronomy and social sciences like archaeology. I am a big believer in curiosity as a driver. If you want to know more about the world, you should look to some new news. Something that excites you: innovations in gardening, new songs, new video games, new knitting techniques, new political developments, whatever it may be. Then look into you and see how you absorb it. See how you transmute it and it transmutes you. This will open up new questions. And new questions can become new poems. What a beautiful dance of knowledge and nourishment and loss we can do together if we are willing.
BKR: As this new year unfolds, with a new administration in the White House and what always feels like a fresh, clean slate, what’s next on the John A. Nieves horizon? What can readers expect from you?
JAN: Oh. Thank goodness. Yes. I am working on three projects right now. I hope they continue to grow or find their natural conclusions. The first is a formal experiment that explores stanzaics through scavengers, balladeers, and pamphleteers. It works through a different version of each in couplets, tercets, quatrains and cinquains. The second is exploring places of transition: ports, conclaves, observatories. The third